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Monaco: No better time for the first Big East title (March 13)

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NEW YORK – Way back on Dec. 2, 1995, Notre Dame played its first Big East game against Rutgers. On Wednesday night, the Irish commence their final Big East tournament when they square off against the Scarlet Knights.

But in the 17 seasons since that inaugural league game, Notre Dame has never won a Big East tournament. And now, with the ACC looming, the Irish have one final chance. One final chance to win a league title. One final chance to exorcise the Madison Square Garden demons.

Notre Dame has reached the Big East semifinals in each of the past three seasons, but each time the Irish have fallen short of making the title game. They’ve never played in a championship game at the “World’s Greatest Arena,” and they’ve never won a regular-season crown.

If Notre Dame wants to make the next step toward being an elite basketball program, now would be the perfect time. The ACC will likely be the cream of the conference crop in the coming years, with the likes of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville (in 2014) – typically top-25 programs – joining storied squads such as Duke and North Carolina as well as respectable teams like North Carolina State, Miami and Florida State.

If Notre Dame wants to hang with the best and routinely challenge for top seeds in the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament, a Big East title this weekend would go a long way toward setting the tone.

So, does Notre Dame have what it takes to bring the first conference hardware back? Well, if not now, when? Senior forward Jack Cooley leads the team in scoring and rebounding and will be off to the professional ranks at the end of the season. Sure, the Irish will return junior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant next season, along with fellow starters Tom Knight and Pat Connaughton, but there is no one in line to replace Cooley.

So can Cooley lead the Irish in his final trip to the Mecca? Atkins said Sunday that Cooley is due for a breakout game. The 6-foot-9 double-double machine has not scored 20 or more points since the beginning of February, when he went for 26 against DePaul. He hasn’t broken 13 points since Feb. 13 against the Blue Demons. Cooley is due like the world was due for a non-European pope.

But can Cooley and the Irish get it done at Madison Square Garden? Notre Dame is 1-3 in its last four games above Penn Station. Most recently, St. John’s upset the Irish, 67-63, back in January. Prior to that, the last time Notre Dame played at the Garden, it lost to Louisville, 64-50, in last season’s Big East semifinals.

In the conference tournament as a whole, Notre Dame is 9-17 all-time. Under Mike Brey, the Irish are 8-12. The historical signs point against Notre Dame. So can this year be different?

Brey doesn’t like looking at the draw, but it’s worth analyzing. Notre Dame has won at least one Big East tournament game in each of the last four seasons, and the Irish should be able to get past No. 11 seed Rutgers. After that, Notre Dame would match up with No. 3 seed Marquette, a team the Irish fell to by eight points. But that was on Senior Day for the Golden Eagles, and Notre Dame was, essentially, without the illness-stricken Cooley.

If the Irish were to make it past Marquette, Louisville would be the next squad on the docket. Notre Dame split with the Cardinals this year, so a victory over Louisville isn’t out of the question.

Pittsburgh, Syracuse or Georgetown would, presumably, be the championship opponent. Those would be difficult matchups, to be sure, but with the magic of a final tournament at the Mecca … who knows?

And a conference crown this weekend, in the final Big East tournament, in advance of joining a premier league, could be the perfect way to close out 18 years in the Big East.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.